Having grown in Athens’ “downtown” (in Kipseli for those who know anything about the city) it was almost certain that I would be attracted to Tokyo’s “shitamachi” (下町), if for no other reason than for its name since the two characters’ literal translation is “down” and “town”. With time though, the attraction became deeper because even though the Japanese name is more literal (it referred to the eastern parts of Edo –and by extension, Tokyo- that were indeed lower than the hilly western areas), the micro-culture that developed in these areas fits perfectly with most people’s idea about a city’s “downtown” and is almost completely different from their idea about both Tokyo and the Japanese; with “micro-culture” I mean all the things related to everyday life and put aside (to the extent this can be done) the big things like Kabuki, sumo or sushi that have defined Japanese culture in its entirety and have also developed in the same area.
Shitamachi is narrow streets with low houses, tiny balconies with laundry hung out to dry and futon being aired to become fluffy, flower pots on window sills and sidewalks, neighborhood housewives gossiping while food is being cooked, taverns with chimneys filling the air with the aroma of roasting food and noren-curtained doors merely blocking the chink of glasses and the drunk laughter, mothers with bicycles full of children and shopping bags, almost invisible temples and shrines crammed between parking lots and small company offices, bars with five stools and two tables, grocery stores with 70 year-old owners, workshops with craftsmen who in the summer make the street their bench, cycling postmen and policemen, construction workers who take their brake in their vans’ back drinking cheap “Ozeki” sake and eating instant ramen, nets of power lines and loud and hearty small talk in accents and vocabularies that have little to do with “proper Japanese”.
Like most big cities, it is said for Tokyo that “everyone is from somewhere else” and like most big cities this is only partially true: east of the imperial palace that replaced the Tokugawa shoguns’ Edo castle, in Nihonbashi, Kanda, Ueno, Irya, Asakusa, Ryogoku, Ginza, Asakusabashi, Arakawa and beyond the river –in Fukagawa, Mukojima, Oshiage, Toyosu, Kiba or Katsushika- people did indeed come “from somewhere else” but they came three, four of five generations back so now they are actually “from here”. And even though in the eyes of tourists (and not just foreign tourists) the neighborhoods and the life they built through natural and manmade disasters might seem mundane and lacking the elements that (are supposed to) characterize Japan, the alleys of shitamachi are as much Japan as Fuji, Kyoto’s Kinkakuji or Himeji Castle –if not more.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.